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Another year, another question about the Cowboys' running game. But this time, there's a little more certainty as to who's getting the bulk of the carries. Despite not starting a game in the regular season in 2007, Marion Barber scored 12 total touchdowns and led the Cowboys in rushing. Barber's emergence over the past two seasons is why Julius Jones is now fighting for carries in Seattle.
With Jones out of the picture, there shouldn't be any questions about Barber's playing time, so the major question now becomes whether Barber is capable of carrying the load on a full-time basis and live up to the top-10 billing he now gets in fantasy drafts because of his featured role in the Cowboys offense.
Barber's greatest asset is his versatility. He established himself as a third-down back who can catch passes out of the backfield, but he's also a hard-nosed runner between the tackles, which made him the go-to guy at the goal line. But he can also rip off the big play, as he's averaged 4.8 yards per carry each of the past two seasons. You can't pull off an average like that if you're only getting carries inside the 20.
In 2007, Barber carried the ball 160 of 204 times outside the opponent's 20-yard line. In those carries, he averaged a whopping 5.3 yards per carry. That includes a crazy 8.5 yards-per-carry on 44 attempts between the 40s. So obviously, he can be trusted upon to carry the ball anywhere on the field.
However, because of the presence of Jones last season, Barber had just one game in the regular season where he got more than 20 carries; that was Week 16, where he had 22 rushes for 110 yards and a touchdown. By then, the Cowboys had pretty much given up on Jones. Barber then finally got a start in the NFC Divisional playoff game against the Giants, carrying the ball 27 times for 129 yards and a score. When given the carries, he can produce. Although despite just the one 20-carry game, he still had three 100-yard rushing outings (and another at 96 yards).
While the numbers say he can carry the load when given the opportunity, Barber's approach to the game might be his biggest hurdle. He's been nicknamed "The Barbarian," given his very tough style on the field. He turned heads in training camp this year with a gigantic hit on teammate, linebacker Tyson Smith, during a blitz pick-up drill. As a inside runner, he draws plenty of contact and takes a lot of hits. That punishment could add up over time, but the way the Cowboys have kept his touches in check during his career, this might delay a physical breakdown. Plus, he shared carries in at Minnesota with Laurence Maroney, so in some ways, he's still relatively fresh, compared to many other backs who were the main guy in college.
One way to keep Barber fresh is to have other backs who can carry some of the load with little drop off in production. Enter Felix Jones, the Cowboys' first-round pick in this year's draft. This Jones is very familiar working in a two-back system, as he served as a running mate to Darren McFadden at Arkansas. But even as the other back, Felix Jones averaged 7.6 yards per carry (and 8.7 last season), so he too knows how to pull off the big play.
Even with those big numbers, Felix Jones still knows his place on the team, and that's as a complementary back. The Cowboys even noted that they were looking for a guy to complement Barber, which is why they chose Felix Jones over Rashard Mendenhall at the draft. While it seems like Barber can do just about everything in the backfield, Jones still has a prominent role designed for him in the offense. He'll handle some of the outside runs, and the Cowboys have even experimented using both Barber and Jones in the backfield at the same time to change things up.
Obviously, it's still Barber's job, but even Jones' presence, we could now see Barber getting 20 carries on a regular basis. Not including Week 17, when the Cowboys pretty much shut it down, Barber had five games with single-digit carries (although he made up it a bit with a six-catch and a 10-catch game among those five outings). Now, he'll probably be breaking double digits on a regular basis, but will it be in the midteens or closer to 20? Jones will have a lot to say about that. In effect, Felix Jones will be the relief back Julius Jones eventually became, but this time the expectations are a lot different right from the beginning.
Barber has the toughness and versatility to do whatever the Cowboys want from him out of the backfield, and he's ready to carry a bigger load this year, which explains his high draft position so far. The Cowboys can keep him fresh with Felix Jones picking up some of the slack, but you might expect to see more of that later in the season, as Felix Jones figures out his role in the offense. Early in the season, though, look for a lot more Barber, who can produce big numbers seemingly no matter how many touches he gets. He's a safer bet than you might think.
James Quintong is an editor for ESPN Fantasy.